ONE DAY – Watch It At Home:  An Off-Day
What went wrong with ONE DAY?  It’s been clear for a while that its studio, Focus Features, didn’t have great confidence in the film:  first  they postponed the opening from its original midsummer date to late August (which has turned out to be an even worse destination than it appeared, now that it’s facing the surprise smash The Help), and then it was withheld from critics until 3 days before hitting theaters–the same treatment given to Conan the Barbarian.
All this came as an enormous surprise as it unfolded, because when the movie was being made, it seemed like the filmmakers were doing everything right.  They allowed David Nicholls, author of the best-selling and well-liked novel, to write his own adaptation; hired Lone Scherfig, fresh off the acclaimed An Education, to direct; and as the two leads, they cast Anne Hathaway, who’s as talented as she is successful (an American, but that’s not an insuperable problem), and Jim Sturgess,  a fast-rising British leading man.  And yet….
One Day, novel and film, is based around a narrative gimmick:  it introduces the protagonists Emma and Dexter (Hathaway and Sturgess) on July 15, 1988, the day they both graduated from college and had an almost-one-night-stand that turned into a friendship, and follows their story by presenting a snapshot of their lives on each July 15 that follows, all the way to the present (it turns out that the date has more significance than was at first evident, but to say any more would be a spoiler).  Although Dex and Em become best friends, they drive each other crazy (Emma’s feelings for Dex aren’t requited; Dex is such a shallow narcissist that he barely seems to have feelings at all) and are often apart over the years, each with career and romantic trajectories that rise and fall.  The novel provides a social history of life over the past two decades even as it builds up the portraits of its protagonists, and also has more than a little to say about the process of getting older and facing one’s life in the real world.
The film is, in a technical sense, a faithful adaptation of the book, in that it mostly follows the general events and storyline of the novel.   But it doesn’t even come close to working in the way it’s supposed to; it’s limp and uninvolving, with no momentum.  A great deal of the problem turns out to be the very thing that made the book stand out in the first place:  its narrative scheme.  Even though each episode of the novel takes place on a single day per year, the nature of prose fiction is that Nicholls is easily able to go into the heads of the characters to present events that led up to that day and how their thoughts and feelings have evolved over the preceding year.  The movie, which squeezes the decades-long story into 106 minutes, can’t do the same, and the result is that not only is the structure schematic, but most of the episodes are schematic too, loaded with exposition and having the feel of free-standing one-act sketches.  So much background’s been cut that everything happening in the characters’ professional careers feels arbitrary, and there’s no nuance to them as people.


Added to this is the sad fact that there’s no romantic chemistry at all between Hathaway and Sturgess.  Every time Emma and Dexter are together, they might as well have just been introduced; the emotional bond between them that’s essential to pull the episodes together is absent.  The result is disastrous for the leads.  Hathaway doesn’t give a bad performance as such, but until the film’s last half-hour, Emma is defined almost totally by her pathetic love-lorn feelings for Dex–she’s drained of almost all other emotions and relationships, and it makes her seem bland and borderline annoying (Hathaway’s English accent is inconsistent and anonymous, which doesn’t help).  Romola Garai, in a much smaller role that doesn’t begin until the story’s second half, gets more shading as a character than Hathaway does.  As for Sturgess, he’s now starred in several major films (21, Across the Universe, The Way Back), and although his performances have been perfectly professional in all of them, he’s yet to make a really striking impression.  He’s never believable as a self-centered, insensitive man or someone out of control here–even when Dex is at his nastiest, Sturgess still seems like a nice guy–and thus his character’s arc provides little satisfaction.
In all the superficial ways, One Day is beautifully made.  Scherfig and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme have bathed the film in gorgeous light (even when the characters are living in shabby near-poverty), and there’s a lovely score by Rachel Portman.  Barney Pilling’s editing no doubt does what it was intended to do, which is to move briskly from one episode to the next  The production, hair and make-up, and costume design mostly do a fine job of shifting along the decades without becoming cartoonish.  Everything is there on screen, except the pieces that are most crucial.
One Day, with all its flaws, has an intelligence and skill that isn’t evident in many Hollywood romances, but it lacks charm and passion.  It’s a wan disappointment, a romance that doesn’t linger even for a day in the mind or heart.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."